Bisected reindeer eye with an iridescent blue layer visible

Colour in the collections: reindeer eye

One of the more unusual colourful specimens at the Museum is a reindeer eyeball that has been sliced in half.

The iridescent layer is a colour-changing marvel that transformed with the seasons.

When it is carved in two like this, the startling colours of the reindeer eye become obvious.

Part of the national eye collection housed at the Museum, this specimen shows the interior of the creature's eye in extraordinary detail.

Eight anatomical eye specimens

The national eye collection contains more than 150 anatomical specimens, including (from left to right) the bisected eyeballs of a goat, gazelle, reindeer, fin whale, Himalayan bear, black kite, osprey and wolf fish
 

Not only is the reindeer's eye beautiful, it is a scientific marvel. The animal's eyes change from a golden colour to a deep blue as summer fades to winter, helping it to see in dramatically different light levels.

What is happening?

The part that changes colour is called the tapetum lucidum. It is a shiny, mirrored layer behind the retina that helps some animals to see in the dark.

When light enters the eye much of it hits the sensitive cells in the retina. But sometimes it misses the mark. The tapetum lucidum gives the eye a second chance to detect the light by reflecting it back towards the retina again.

It is the reason some mammals, including cats, have eyes that seem to glow when light is shined on them.

In many animals this reflective layer shines gold, permanently. While reindeer eyes are also gold in the summer months, in winter their layer turns blue.

Why the colour change?

Scientists think the blue colour helps to capture even more light. Animals that live in the Arctic experience dramatic changes in light levels, with long hours of bright light in the summer and almost total darkness in winter.

One theory is that in the winter, pressure inside the animal's eye builds due to the effort of keeping the pupils dilated and large for months on end.

The pressure squeezes fluid out of the tapetum lucidum, which is formed mostly of collagen fibres. As result, the fibres pack together more tightly and start to reflect blue wavelengths of light instead of yellow.

The blue eyes become over a thousand times more sensitive to light than the yellow summer ones, making reindeer vision perfectly adapted to its unforgiving habitat.